James Haskell is poised to replace Chris Robshaw at openside flanker for England’s opening Six Nations match against Scotland after Eddie Jones, the new head coach, admitted that he would have to “manufacture” a short-term successor to play No 7 during the championship.
Jones revealed that he had been consulting the former Australia openside George Smith, Haskell’s team-mate at Wasps, over his openside options before naming his 33-man Six Nations squad. Smith recommended the best opensides he had played against in the Premiership since he joined Wasps last season, with Harlequins’ Jack Clifford, who also plays at No 8, also in contention, while the Gloucester openside Matt Kvesic has been included as injury cover for Exeter’s Dave Ewers.
While Clifford is likely to feature at some stage during the championship, sources indicated on Wednesday night that Haskell was expected to start in Edinburgh on Feb 6. Haskell, who, with 62 caps, is the second most experienced player in the squad behind Dylan Hartley (66), is likely to miss Wasps’ Champions Cup match against Toulon on Sunday with a shoulder injury but it is not thought to be serious.
Jones said the 30-year-old, who last started for England at openside flanker in the 14-14 draw with South Africa in June 2012, had also been doing extra work with Smith during club sessions to hone his skills at the breakdown.
“If you look at rugby generally around the world and particularly at Test rugby, you need to have someone who is consistently good at slowing down opposition ball,” Jones said. “A seven’s primary job is to ensure that on your ball you get quick ball on that first ruck. On the opposition’s ball, they have to slow it down. Then the really good sevens like Pocock, McCaw, Smith and Kane see other opportunities to slow ball down.
“We have to pick a bloke who, at the moment, can do that primary job of first phase work. There are a couple of blokes in the squad who we think can do it, not on a long-term basis, but short-term. Haskell might be one of them. Clifford’s best position is definitely going to be eight, but he might have to start off as a seven.
“Rodney So’oialo started off as a seven and he ended up as a pretty handy No 8. If he turns out to be that good we’ll be pretty happy.”
Read more on James Haskell.